Michael Adams picks up some of the finest teeth in Cape Town. He sleeps in a disused railway tunnel near Milnerton Lagoon and walks to the beach each morning at dawn. First he rinses his face in the ocean, facing Table Mountain and the giant metal cranes of the container terminal; then he steps back to study the currents and pray. “Just two or three teeth,” he asks, holding his shoes behind his back. “Just one good find.” He opens his eyes and sets off.
Joe-Louis Kanyona, a 32-year old Congolese resident of Cape Town, was hired as a doorman at craft beer megabar Beerhouse on Long Street last December. At 10:37pm on Saturday 20 June, while standing guard at the entrance, Kanyona, a smaller man than his occupation usually dictates, was approached by four men and stabbed in the neck. Without withdrawing the knife from his flesh — "it was a steak knife, like something from a restaurant," an eyewitness said — Kanyona tried to run upstairs, where his brother Julian was working, but faltered after a few steps. He died a few minutes later. His last words, spoken in French and repeated three times, were: "Lord, I put myself in your hands."
When Manie Louw took over a farm outside Paternoster last year his neighbours warned him about three things: stock theft, jackals, and pied crows. Louw, a 53 year-old sheep farmer from Calvinia, grew up raising livestock and thought himself familiar with the risks of the trade. He brought 42 aging Dorper ewes to the coast with him, hoping to fatten them for slaughter on the farm’s Strandveld vegetation. “I didn’t know what people meant about the crows,” he said. Since arriving in April he has been forced to slit the throats of 21 ewes and more than 30 lambs after discovering them with their eyeballs pecked out.
“I want diamonds so I can settle my family and retire,” Yellow told me. To do this he needed to return to Namaqualand in the Northern Cape, where teams of illegal diggers sell uncut stones on the black-market. I wanted to find out more about the trade, which supports hundreds of families in an area beset by chronic unemployment, and had offered him a lift in a borrowed Land Cruiser. Four days later, at dawn on a Saturday, we left.
Early in 2016, a few months before his 65th birthday, Sadick ‘Dickie’ Holtman, the tea-brewing custodian of the Turkish baths on Long Street, will retire after nearly 30 years on the job. As an employee of the City of Cape Town he is entitled to a gratuity payout in addition to his monthly pension. He plans to use the extra money to fund his first pilgrimage to Mecca. At work he faces the Islamic holy city three or four times each day, depending on the season, and kneels between the changing room stalls to pray. Then he returns to his chair and picks up the newspaper, or boils the kettle again, or strolls to the sauna to tell a customer to get out soon, or mops the tiled floor, which is always wet.
Daniel Sambo, 47, lives in a farm cottage outside Robertson but works as a gardener in town. Jacaranda flowers carpet the streets purple in summer. When they encroach on an employer’s property he sweeps them up. He wears blue overalls and a Nike beanie and has a scar across the bridge of his nose, which set crooked the last time it was broken. Another scar, an embossed ridge of keloid tissue, protrudes above his left eye. He weighs less than 60 kg and can rest his chin on the roof of a parked car without crouching. He earns R130 a day now, R60 more than he earned before he got fired but R20 short of the wage he went on strike for. The new job is easy and he gets left alone most of the time, which is relaxing, he says. But he’d like to work on the farm again: it’s what he knows best and it’d feel more secure – if only it paid him enough.
It was a flawless Cape Town Saturday, the kind of day people gravitate to beaches and picnic spots, and Ras Benjamin stepped on to the mountain. He wore tracksuit pants, a short-sleeved collared shirt and a tall black turban wound tightly around his dreadlocks. Unlike many other Rastafarian herbalists, who choose to remain barefoot, he wore shoes — sneakers, with neon green laces. He also carried a frayed brown rucksack. Together we climbed the path. Boyes Drive and the wide arc of False Bay fell away beneath us, and Benjamin scanned the slope for medicinal plants.
The farmworkers’ cottages outside Robertson, when viewed from a moving vehicle and a vantage point of sufficient privilege, are easy surfaces on which to project fantasies of rural idyll. Wooden doors open onto small, tended gardens with bougainvillea shrubs climbing the whitewashed walls. The sun is out; laundry hangs drying on wire fences. Barelegged children wave at cars cruising by. A month before harvest season begins the vineyards are mostly empty, stretched out in neat green rows across the landscape. Here and there, labourers in blue overalls punctuate the fields, tending to the vines.
A little over a year ago, I drove my scooter into Hangberg in the Western Cape and met a perlemoen poaching kingpin. It was a Wednesday afternoon and the sun was out. Six shirtless men were sitting on camping stools and upturned crates on the pavement. My contact, David*, who lived in the adjacent apartment, was nowhere to be seen and I could feel the men’s eyes following me as I parked. The clip on my helmet jammed; I fumbled and tugged myself free. I crossed the road and greeted them to little response, then walked into the empty yard.
Keypads, batteries, touch screens, circuit boards, SIM cards, camera lenses, plastic clips. Lance the cellphone repairman is scratching through an overstuffed backpack for a part. A disembowelled Nokia lies on the coffee table beside him, next to an ashtray, a cigarette box and a day-old copy of Die Son. It has just stopped raining. The room is dark. Lance is sweating. “Speak to that guy,” the owner of the apartment says, pointing at his guest. “He’s one of the tik-koppe. He’s one of the aliens. He smokes every day. He’s fucked up. Look at him.”
“Most sacred heart of Jesus have mercy on us,” reads a poster of Christ taped to Bra Aaron’s fridge. A chipped enamel stove stands beside it. On the wall, above mismatched mugs hanging from hooks, a framed Kitchen Prayer in cursive script catches the light. Bra Aaron is stooped over a newspaper in the lounge, framed by an open doorway. My knock at the entrance startles him. Confused, he looks up and sees a figure silhouetted in white. His jaw opens noiselessly. I unlatch the bottom half of the door and step inside, where it is cool and dim.
The boy linking the invasive fish to the immigrant restaurant was smiling on the grass beside the Liesbeek River. “We caught this one using a crate,” he said, posing for a photograph with a catfish the length of his arm. “They’ll pay R120 for a fish this big.” His name was Meelyn Williams. His brother, Keenan, and cousin, Jerome Wagner, were standing to one side, holding up smaller fish of their own. It was a weekday afternoon. The sun was out. A mongrel was running in circles, excited by the occasional flapping — the fish were still alive — and the smell.
Trees are on the move. The composition of the world’s savanna landscapes is changing. And carbon dioxide, more famously responsible for tweaking the Earth’s climate, is playing a leading role. This is the message from a group of distinguished ecologists who argue that carbon emissions, by providing extra fuel for photosynthesis, give trees an advantage over grasses in savanna ecosystems. Bush encroachment is what results; among other effects it could place large portions of Africa’s unique biodiversity at risk.
The ghost suburb in the middle of nowhere is carefully guarded. A boom gate prevents access. To enter Koingnaas, a relic diamond-mining town on South Africa’s Namaqualand coast, you exchange identity documents for official stamps of approval. With luck the boom is raised, and you are allowed inside.